Pretty Ugly Gallery is a photographic mission dedicated to finding the beauty in "ugly," mundane objects, such as dumpsters, trash cans, rusted cars and fire hydrants. The project started in 2013 when photographer Howie Ronay was suddenly captivated by a rusted out dumpster while walking in Downtown Chicago. He began to photograph it and posted his finding on Instagram. We caught up with Ronay on the evolution of Pretty Ugly Gallery from Instagram to gallery walls.
Asymmetric Magazine: We love the whole concept behind the Pretty Ugly Gallery and how you got started. When you’re shooting, do you go out on the search for interesting dumpsters and trash cans, or are all of your pieces things you’ve stumbled upon at random?
Howie Ronay: My shoots happen randomly. The ugly objects I photograph stop me out of nowhere. Before I know it, I’m standing in the middle of the street shooting a traffic cone or a dumpster. To a passersby, I must look insane. I was snapping shots of a bulldozer in Marina Del Rey, and a man came up to me asking if I worked with the Department of Transportation. Things can get interesting when you’re shooting the types of subjects I shoot.
AM: So, what’s your favorite 'pretty ugly' subject you’ve come across in LA so far?
HR: I’d love to answer this question with an LA centric object, a dead palm tree branch or the back of the rusted Hollywood sign, but the best subject I’ve come across in LA has been my first and only garbage truck. I hadn’t yet had the pleasure of shooting a garbage truck until now. So, cross that off the bucket list.
AM: Who are the masterminds behind Pretty Ugly Gallery?
HR: I’ve been shooting these neglected, overlooked objects for the past few years, but it was my wife’s idea to turn it from an Instagram feed into something more. This past year, we’ve garnered interest from some surprising venues. Robert Redford’s Sundance Foundation selected Pretty Ugly Gallery to exhibit at one of its cinema galleries. We’ve also done private exhibits in Santa Monica and Austin. And more recently, Giancarlo Esposito from Breaking Bad said he had to have Trash Can 3 from our Trash Can series. I have to give my wife Jennifer a lot of credit. She saw that it could be something more.
AM: Were you a photographer prior to starting Pretty Ugly Gallery, or was it that first dumpster in Chicago that sparked your interest in the art?
HR: I was not a photographer prior to starting Pretty Ugly Gallery. But, I’ve been lucky enough to have a career as a Creative Director in advertising where a big part of the job is to express myself visually. Still, there’s nothing like being able to express yourself uninhibited and with complete autonomy. It’s a beautiful thing. Kind of like a dumpster in the right light.
AM: Aside from finding the beauty in the ugly, what’s your biggest inspiration?
HR: The truth is, finding the beauty in the ugly is the biggest inspiration. In some strange way, I feel like I’m giving a voice to these often ignored, everyday objects that we pay no attention to. When people send us photos of trash cans or traffic cones they’ve hung in their homes, it makes me really happy. It’s a validation of Pretty Ugly Gallery’s mission to find the beauty everywhere.
AM: What role does Los Angeles play in your work?
HR: Pretty Ugly Gallery actually started in Chicago, and I’ll never forget that first brown dumpster I shot downtown. While Chicago may have been the genesis for Pretty Ugly Gallery, Los Angeles has been my muse. The photographs have really evolved during my time in LA. There’s an artistic energy here like nowhere else that I think has fueled the evolution of Pretty Ugly Gallery.
There’s nothing like being able to express yourself uninhibited and with complete autonomy. It’s a beautiful thing. Kind of like a dumpster in the right light.
AM: It’s stunning how the pieces look as if they’re abstract paintings. Can you share a bit of your process and creating each piece?
HR: Thank you. It’s surprising how many people comment on how much they love the 'paintings,' which is such a great compliment. But they are indeed photos. I can tell you that my process isn’t nearly as interesting as the ugly subjects themselves. I like say the dumpster does most of the work.
AM: Can you tell us about the organizations/charities you're associated with?
HR: Pretty Ugly Gallery’s mission is to find the beauty in all things, so we felt that we should partner with organizations that help find the good where it’s not always so easy to do. We recently partnered with Anthropos Arts in Austin, TX, which provides musical instruments and education to underserved young people. Pretty Ugly Gallery artwork is also currently being incorporated into a documentary about street homelessness in America. The documentary is called Invisible to You, and it sheds light on this serious social issue, as well as the people who are working hard to help remedy it.
AM: What music are you currently jamming to?
HR: I’m into a big Eminem phase right now. After watching HBO’S Defiant Ones, I’ve been listening to the Recovery album a lot. The way he manipulates and plays with language is an incredible gift.
AM: What can we expect to see from you next?
HR: The plan is to get Pretty Ugly Gallery pieces exhibiting in more galleries. I also have this vision of visiting other cities and photographing their “ugly” objects, and then creating a collection of Pretty Ugly pieces from those shoots with proceeds going back to that city. In my mind, I see special editions and photo books dedicated to PUG HOUSTON and PUG SAN JUAN, for example.